The ”dirty” books we read – and reread – as teens
My ”Confessions” column last week — about my daughter’s penchant for Gossip Girl novels — unleashed a torrent of commentary from fellow staffers at the magazine, many of whom stopped by my office to talk about the books they’d snuck as teenagers. Everyone pretty much agreed: This kind of surreptitious reading is a traditional rite of passage. But what surprised me was how many of my colleagues — separated not just by geography but by generation — turned to the same books for their, uh, information: The Godfather (page 27 was specifically mentioned by two people), Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Jaws, The Diary of Anais Nin, The Other Side of Midnight, and anything by Judy Blume or John Jakes (though, as senior editor Thom Geier said, ”But Jakes tended to write his sex scenes in language so obscure that you’d have to go rushing to the dictionary to figure out what in the world he was trying to say. And even then, you didn’t really learn very much”). Seven people cited Stephen King’s Christine, including senior editor Nicholas Fonseca: ”Mom saw me reading it and she said, ”How can you read that? I remember the movie being really full of foul language!”’
Over half the women mentioned V.C. Andrews’ ”incest classics.” Senior writer Karen Valby said, ”The Flowers in the Attic series wouldn’t have gone over very well if my mother had ever peeked inside.” Almost all the women cited Judy Blume’s Forever, which as far as I can tell was the first Blume novel with an actual sex scene. ”I remember reading Forever in the sixth grade!” said photo editor Michele Romero. ”This puts me at 11 — way too young, in hindsight. Is there a statute of limitations on reprimanding your inner child? Anyway, I do recall that we had the ‘virginity loss’ page folded over and would pass it back and forth under the desk.” At my junior high school, back in Denton, Texas, it was on the ”Forbidden Book List” — if you were caught with it, you were first sent to the office and then sent home.
At first I was surprised that so many of my colleagues — nine in all — mentioned Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, since I was in graduate school when it came out. Then I remembered how old I am, and how young most of them are. As writer Scott Brown put it, delicately, ”[It had] the first sex scene I ever read, and it wasn’t, er, traditional sex. I could barely figure out what was going on. But I did figure it out, thanks to careful study and many, many readings.” Another staff writer, Greg Kirschling, concurred: ”You remember how raunchy that book’s sex scenes were? Great twist at the end, too. But then my mother took it with her on a vacation with my dad and I remember her walking back through the front door with her bags still in her arms and immediately walking up to me in the kitchen, plopping the paperback down on the counter, and saying, ‘We need to have a talk.”’
Assistant managing editor Kristen Baldwin was one of several who read — and reread — Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear: ”I’m pretty sure my mom knew I was reading it — I mean, she was the one who had to drive me to the mall to go book shopping — but I don’t think she had any idea how capital-F filthy that book is. It’s prehistoric porn!” EW book critic Jennifer Reese was partial to Judith Krantz’s Scruples: ”It looked like just another slightly racy supermarket paperback — the only kind of book I liked to read as an adolescent — but when I got about, I don’t know, 32 pages in, there was this sex scene where they did things I had never even heard about. I mean, Judy Blume was fine but she’s all about missionary mechanics and tender, proper emotions; this was shocking and thrilling and raw. I got quite an education: about gay sex, about oral sex, about the fashion world, about opening a boutique… but mostly about sex.”
Of course, most EW staffers were lucky enough to have parents with open minds when it came to books. Music writer Chris Willman recalls, ”In the fourth grade in 1972, I turned in a book report on the Donald E. Westlake novel The Hot Rock, having been duly inspired to read it by the Robert Redford/George Segal jewelry-heist movie of the same name. My teacher was horrified… though I’m not sure if it’s because I was reading ‘adult’ books or because I was confessing that my parents took me at 10 or 11 to see GP-rated movies, which then was the sign of really morally wanton parenting.” Greg Kirschling remembers that in one of his progress reports at his Catholic school, ”my teacher wrote: ‘I’m concerned about what he reads but so long as he has parental approval I will not interfere.’ My favorite books that term were Red Dragon, Fatal Vision, and the dirtiest novels of Ed McBain.”
So, EW readers, let’s have it: What books — forbidden or not — were you learning from as teenagers?
For more of Tina Jordan’s thoughts on current children’s books, see Kids' Corner.